When are all salts created equal, and when do they have distinct culinary uses? Here’s a primer on teaching the qualities and characteristics of the world’s most common seasoning.
By Adam Weiner, CFSE
I was recently asked to give a presentation at the San Francisco Exploratorium (a hands-on science museum) about salt. During three hours, I had more than 400 people stop at my display and taste salt, discuss different types of salt and question the difference between cooking with salt and finishing food with salt.
The next day, I was reading the March 2012 National Culinary Review, and on page nine it listed 12 food trends for 2012. Number 10 was: “Salt: premium finishing varieties and artisanal presentation.” Something was telling me to write about teaching SALT.
- Without salt, food tastes flat. Salt should be added to almost every food to bring out its natural flavor. A great way to demonstrate this is to make a salt-free broth or soup and then have your students taste it. Ask your students to rank it on a scale of 1 to 10. Add a little salt, stir and have them taste it and rank it again. Add a little more salt and repeat. Compare the rankings after all of the tasting.
- Generally, you should not be able to taste the salt in the finished food. Many recipes contain the phrase “season to taste.” With the exception of a few salty foods (like French fries) and salty snacks (like potato chips), you really don’t want to taste the salt. Too much salt actually ruins the taste of most foods. To demonstrate this, take the broth or soup and add the same amount of salt you would add to a bowl of popcorn and have your students taste it. They will get the point.
- Nearly all salt that we use originally came from the sea. Even salt domes and salt mines are really sea salt, since most of them were created by being under water at some time in the past. (Sources differ on how the salt got into the sea in the first place. I am not a geologist, but it seems the generally accepted theory is that salt came out of the Earth’s crust on land as well as leached out from the crust on the bottom of the oceans. The salt on land was washed to sea through rivers. It became more concentrated as evaporation took place.)
- Salt is nothing more than a chemical compound of two elements: sodium and chloride (NaCl). In the United States, to be approved for cooking and eating, the salt must be 97% pure sodium chloride. Kosher salt has the reputation of being 100% pure, but read the labels—several brands of kosher salt have anti-caking additives.
- Cooking salts are used, as the name implies, for cooking. The two most commonly used in America’s commercial kitchens are table salt and kosher salt.
- Blends and artisan varieties of salt, like other salts, must also be at least 97% pure to be called salt. There is a whole panoply of these salts, but basically they fall into two categories: (1) salts found in nature (like Hawaiian sea salt) and (2) regular salts that are blended and crafted to become something new (ranging from common garlic salt to Cabernet salt flavored with wine from the Napa Valley). There really isn’t any point using these more-expensive salts for cooking. The amount of salt added in cooking to the water, broth, stock or even on meat or chicken is so small compared to the water, broth, etc., that the less than 3% difference really won’t change the taste. In my demonstration that I mentioned above, I had everyone taste a 2% salt-in-water solution using cheap table salt, kosher salt and very expensive Italian sea salt. (At one point I had more than 50 people waiting in line to taste salt water!) Basically, no one could taste the difference. Realistically, much of the perceived differences in these types of salt are because of marketing.
- There IS a difference between cooking salt and finishing salt. As discussed above, cooking salt is to season the food so it won’t taste flat, and it really doesn’t matter what type of salt you use for that. Finishing salt, on the other hand, is added right before serving. This gives a burst of salt flavor and, if the crystals are large, will also give a slight crunch. Salts with color (such as Himalayan salt) also add to presentation. Thus, finishing salts are used for flavor, texture and presentation. Finishing salts can be used from appetizers to desserts. They work best when placed on low-moisture foods so they don’t dissolve.
- Salts are not interchangeable when precision is required. Kosher and other large-grain salts tend to be less dense than plain salt. Not a problem for cooking or finishing. However, this could be an issue with baking. When a baking formula calls for salt, it means regular table salt unless it specifies something else. You can substitute salts if the formula calls for measuring by weight. If the formula calls for teaspoons or tablespoons, you had better stick with plain salt, unless you want to do a weight conversion.
- Salt, like all food, has a psychological component. I like Hawaiian sea salt the best because it brings back memories of my honeymoon and of snorkeling years later with the kids. I have no connection with Italy, so Italian sea salt means nothing to me. Intellectually I know that Hawaiian sea salt dissolved in water tastes the same as Italian sea salt dissolved in water. Emotionally, they taste different. You might be the complete opposite.
Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula.